WASHINGTON - Arizona tied Alaska for the lowest college completion rate in the country in 2013, with just 29 percent of students able to earn a four-year degree in six years or less, a new report says.
The report, released last month by the U.S. Department of Education, also said Arizona posted the highest student loan default rate in the country, at 18 percent, compared to a national average of 11 percent.
State education officials cautioned Monday that the statistics could be skewed by large numbers of students in other states who are getting degrees online from for-profit schools based in Arizona.
The largest online school in the nation, the University of Phoenix, is one of those for-profit schools. The Tempe-based school has more than 300,000 students and had a graduation rate of just 16 percent in 2013. The school's most recent default rate, in 2011, was 19 percent.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that states with higher default rates tend to have lower graduation rates and the problem has to be addressed. Just as the cost of college is higher than ever, he said, a postsecondary credential has never been more important.
Schools should offer a "meaningful, high-quality degree" at an affordable rate, Duncan said in a conference call to discuss the numbers, "and for many students, our colleges are doing just that."
"But for many more," he said, schools are too costly, burying students deep in debt and offering mediocre degrees.
Arizona's completion rate was well below the national average of 55 percent. But a closer look at the numbers shows the state's public and private colleges both posted completion rates above 50 percent, while for-profit schools in the state had a completion rate of 23 percent in 2013, below their peers nationally.
Arizona's public college completion rate of 57 percent was 2 percentage points higher than the national public college average. And the numbers continue to improve, said an Arizona Board of Regents spokeswoman.
"Our most current data is actually 59.8 percent," for the 2014-15 completion rate, said Sarah Harper. "It's a number that, on a pretty consistent level, is growing."
She said the board, which oversees Arizona's three public universities, thinks the schools are on track to meet a 2020 graduation target of 65.6 percent.
The state's private schools had a completion rate of 52 percent, compared to 64 percent for the same schools nationally, the report said.
Arizona's for-profit postsecondary schools had a 23 percent completion rate, compared to 32 percent nationally.
In terms of student default rates, Arizona schools were on par with their national counterparts. The default rate for public schools in the state and nationally was 9 percent, and at for-profit schools it was 19 percent on the state and national level. Private schools in Arizona outperformed the national average, 5 percent to 7 percent.
But combined, the state's default rate was 18 percent compared to a national average of 11 percent.
Harper said the Board of Regents does not keep data on private and for-profit institutions in the state, but it is important to remember that Arizona data include students in the state as well as online students who could be anywhere.
A spokesman at for-profit Grand Canyon University said that he could not speak for other schools in the state, but "as far as Grand Canyon University is concerned, we feel very good about where we are."
Bob Romantic said in an email that graduation rates have continued to improve at the school of "nearly 15,000 students on our ground campus and 60,000 students online" as it has raised admission standards.
He said the federal data used for the recent report look "back to 2008, when GCU was near bankruptcy and had less than 900 students on campus."
"We are obviously a totally different institution," today, said Romantic, adding that there are "strong indicators" that the school's default rates are improving.
Duncan said there is also good news elsewhere, pointing to several "innovative institutions" setting an example of delivering a more-affordable, quality degree.
In a speech at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Duncan cited that school's increased minority enrollment in science and tech majors, and he pointed to Arizona State University's boost in minority enrollment while awarding 60 percent more degrees than a decade ago.
He also cited Vassar and Franklin and Marshall for increasing low-income and first-generation students, and Southern New Hampshire University and University of Wisconsin for making it easier for working parents and returning veterans to get degrees, according to his prepared remarks.
"Real leadership and real strategy" can make a difference in higher education, but "states have to step up," Duncan said in.
"Higher education is a public good," and states need to promote it as such, he said. "It's gaining momentum."
Mohave Community College
Because Mohave Community College offers associate's degrees and certificates, its numbers are not included in the study released from the Department of Education tracking bachelor degree attainment.
The college does use the same methodology to track graduation rates and default rates.
According to Robert Faubert, director of institutional research at MCC, the college has a graduation rate of 32 percent for students completing an MCC certificate or degree. That rate is measured by taking the 2007 cohort and tracking them in their programs over the next six years. In comparison, Arizona's average for community colleges is 30 percent and the national average is 25 percent.
MCC's latest default rate numbers came in 2014, with a rate of 28.6 percent over a 3-year period. The national rate was 20.6 percent.
While significantly higher than the national default rate, MCC is improving its numbers.
"It's going down. We've worked very diligently and put quite a few things in place to help borrowers understand the payment process," said Shannon Sheaff, director of financial aid at MCC.
"We give them resources to help them get in repayment status. What we're really aiming for is some type of repayment status. Walk them through the repayment plans. If you're unemployed, what are your options? Help them understand the complexities of repayment."
The college has about 22 percent of its students taking out federal student loans, with an average yearly loan at around $5,549.
Aubrey Rumore of Cronkite News contributed to this report.